By Michelle FITZPATRICK
FRANKFURT (AFP) — This week’s Frankfurt book fair, the world’s oldest and largest, brings with it the first wave of pandemic novels. But are readers ready to relive coronavirus and lockdown life through fictional characters?
Some of the best-known authors have pandemic tales on the way, with Jodi Picoult finding inspiration in a tourist stranded abroad, while Margaret Atwood is teaming up with the likes of Dave Eggers and John Grisham on a “collaborative novel” about Manhattan residents thrown together by lockdown.
“We members of the human race have been through a very difficult time here on planet Earth, and it’s not over yet,” Atwood told the Frankfurt fair via video link on Tuesday.
“Already the writers have begun to bear witness,” said the Canadian author, who is editing the novel “Fourteen Days: An Unauthorized Gathering”, scheduled for release in 2022.
The newest title by Picoult, whose international bestsellers include “The Pact” and “My Sister’s Keeper”, comes out next month, and will be one of the first pandemic books by a major novelist to hit stores.
Picoult said she wrote “Wish You Were Here” as a way “to make sense of 2020”.
“Artists are meant to find meaning in the things that we don’t understand and a worldwide pandemic qualifies,” the US writer told AFP by email.
Although fewer international publishers and authors are attending the fair this year because of the pandemic, German author John von Dueffel will be in Frankfurt on Friday to tell audiences about his Covid-inspired novel.
In “The Angry and The Guilty”, a woman has to go into quarantine just as the family patriarch is dying.
Not everyone is convinced readers will embrace these early pandemic-themed novels.
Renowned German literary critic Denis Scheck warned against “rushing out” these stories, saying it takes very skilled authors to meaningfully capture historic events in real time.
In the past, some of the best writing on major tragedies only emerged years or even decades after the fact, he said, as has been the case for example with 9/11 fiction.
Scheck noted that many readers have instead been turning to classics like Albert Camus’ “The Plague”, which has taken on new relevance in the Covid era.
“Literature can teach us how to die,” Scheck said.
He praised German author Juli Zeh’s recent novel “Ueber Menschen” (About People) as an example of a coronavirus novel done well.
It chronicles the tale of a woman who escapes the city for rural life, leaving behind a partner who becomes ever more controlling in step with the tightening coronavirus restrictions.
“She’s an author who responds very quickly to current events and does it well,” Scheck said.
But overall, “I’m skeptical,” he added. “I think we’ll have to wait another 10 or 20 years.”
For American author Hilma Wolitzer, mother of acclaimed novelist Meg Wolitzer, waiting was not an option.
The 91-year-old lost her husband to Covid-19 last year, and was hospitalized with the virus herself.
Putting pen to paper “was a way of dealing with grief, when all the usual rituals of mourning, such as a funeral and the company of family and friends, were denied to me,” she told AFP by email.
The resulting story is the closing chapter in her newest book “Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket”, a collection of stories featuring recurring characters, some of which were first published in the 1960s.
“My story is really about a long marriage — its many joys and struggles — that ends with the pandemic, so I hope people will read it for both pleasure and consolation, as they would any work of fiction,” she said.
Picoult said readers “will need to decide for themselves when they are ready to read about Covid in fiction.”
“We need to process what we learned about ourselves in the past 18 months,” she said.
“If my book can do that for even one person, I’ll consider it a success.”